ALSO BY BRETT BATTLES
In memory of
William Relling, Jr.
THE DOORS TO THE COUNCIL ROOM HAD BEEN closed for hours. That wasn’t unusual. Council meetings routinely went into the early hours of the morning. It was just that this was a special meeting with a single item on the agenda. One that was very important to James Hardwick.
Hardwick had been the one to propose the item to his boss. It was a huge power play for both of them, but also the right thing to do. All the pieces were in place, and if the answer was to move forward, so much would be achieved in the service of the overall plan of their organization, a group known as the LP.
While the council met, Hardwick waited in the hallway outside the meeting room, sitting on a wooden chair against the wall. He occupied his time by going over every detail of his proposal: playing out all the scenarios, imagining the possible outcomes for each stage, and working out solutions that would keep the overall focus of the proposal on what they needed to achieve.
At 2:14 a.m. the doors to the meeting room finally swung open.
Hardwick stood up, crossed his hands behind his back, and bowed his head slightly as the members of the council walked by silently. A few didn’t seem to even notice he was there, but most at least gave him a nod, or looked him in the eye as they passed. The fourteenth member to walk by was Chairman Vine.
“Sorry we took so long, James,” Chairman Vine said, his voice wavering. Hardwick had no idea how old he was, but he thought there was little chance the Chairman was under eighty-five.
“No problem, Mr. Chairman. It’s always better to take as much time as needed in matters like this.”
The Chairman looked like he was about to say something, then stopped himself for a moment before speaking again. “He said to give him a few minutes.”
The him the Chairman was referring to would be Hardwick’s boss, Mr. Kidd. He was the only council member who had yet to leave the conference room. “Thank you, sir.”
The Chairman smiled, then turned and followed the others down the hall. His footsteps echoed in the marble hallway, growing fainter and fainter until the corridor fell silent again.
It was a full five minutes before Mr. Kidd called for James to come into the conference room. Without being asked, Hardwick closed the door behind him after he entered.
His boss was sitting in a chair near the end of the large oval table that dominated the room. It was made of mahogany and stained to a dark reddish-brown. Inset into the top of the table in front of each of the fifteen chairs was a computer screen. Only the one in front of Mr. Kidd was on, but Hardwick couldn’t see what was on the screen.
The room had no pictures on the walls, no windows. Here was a place where distraction was not tolerated. Where focus on the issues at hand was all that mattered. The business of the council had been conducted that way for decades. In fact, it was in this very room where the master directive was fleshed out more than fifty years before, the plan members of the LP had been working on since that day. All the original members were dead now, but their vision remained. And it was for the fulfillment of this vision that Hardwick had developed his proposal.
“Sit down,” Mr. Kidd said. He was a robust seventy-four. Sharp, in shape, and full of an energy Hardwick himself also possessed. His face gave nothing away, though, as he watched the younger man take the seat next to him.
“How did it go?” Hardwick asked.
There was a pause, then Mr. Kidd began to smile. “Exactly like you predicted. Your proposal was clear and to the point. Most were able to see the merits immediately. For a few, it took a little bit longer.”
Several hours longer, Hardwick knew, but only said, “So I can get started?”
“A question first. Do you know if Mr. Rose was able to confirm the event he’s selected for his target?”
“Yes,” Hardwick said. “I’m told it’s locked, and there is little chance it will be changed.”
“And the procurement?”
“I had to be careful getting this information, of course, but it appears Mr. Rose has someone he’s hired from the outside already on it. I understand they have already picked up,” he paused, “children from various locations. His target number is between twenty-four and thirty.”
Mr. Kidd frowned. “Distasteful. But necessary, I guess.”
“So Mr. Rose seems to believe.”
“Well, James, you now have the full backing of the council,” Mr. Kidd said.
“So I can start immediately?” Hardwick asked. He could feel his excitement building, but he let none of it show.
“Thank you,” he said to his boss. He started to stand. “I should go. I have plenty to do.”
“There is just one other thing,” Mr. Kidd said.
Hardwick stopped next to the chair, worried that some condition had been added to his plan that would jeopardize its success. “What is it?”
“From now on, you can address me as Chairman.”
Hardwick stared at his boss for a moment. “Seriously?”
“Chairman Vine … Mr. Vine suggested it himself, and the others agreed.”
Hardwick thrust out his hand. “Congratulations, sir. This is fantastic.”
“Is it?” Chairman Kidd said. He didn’t take Hardwick’s hand. “If your proposal doesn’t work out, I’m fairly certain I’ll become the shortest-term Chairman in the history of the LP.” He locked eyes with Hardwick. “I’d appreciate it if you could make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Hardwick grinned as he reached down with both hands and grabbed his boss’s, shaking it with confidence. “I guarantee it.”
THE MEETING LOCATION HAD BEEN CHOSEN FOR ITS isolation, an abandoned Catholic church on the east side of a little-used road fifty kilometers northwest of Cork, Ireland, near the border between County Tipperary and County Cork. The structure that remained was all but invisible from the road. One of those places only a local would know about, then forget over time.
As a bonus, no one lived within a kilometer and a half of the ruins, making it a natural choice for an exchange. In the two days Jonathan Quinn had been scouting the location, no more than a dozen cars a day had driven past, and not a single one had even slowed, let alone stopped.
The roof of the church had long since disappeared, leaving only the gray, pitted stone walls of the chapel. Encouraged by the wet Irish climate, vegetation had grown up around the building, both surrounding it and filling the inside. It was as if a congregation of flora was waiting in the open-air sanctuary for a priest who had yet to arrive.
Nearby, an untended cemetery provided the only reminder that people had once worshipped here. Quinn didn’t know how long the compound had been abandoned, but the most recent grave marker he’d located had been for someone named Maureen Owens, year of death 1889. So it wasn’t hard to imagine that it had been at least a century since any parishioners had gathered between the chapel walls.
Quinn did a last walk-through just after noon, careful to step only on broken stones or patches of grass to avoid leaving any trace of his presence. He double-checked to make sure all the cameras and microphones were well hidden and working. When he was satisfied, he returned on foot to the van parked a half kilometer away.
The meeting was scheduled for nine that evening. According to the agreed-upon terms, the informant was to arrive from the south, while the man from Quinn’s client—an organization known as the Office—was to come in from the north.
They were each instructed to park a quarter kilometer from the location and walk the rest of the way in. They were to meet inside the church, with each participant allowed to bring one associate. Once they had all arrived, the informant would give the Office’s agent certain information in exchange for what Quinn assumed was a generous cash payment.
The details of the exchange, what the information was and what the informant was earning for his efforts, were none of Quinn’s business. He was a cleaner. His job was to watch and observe, and—only if necessary—clean up any mess that might occur.
As Quinn reached the back of the van, the right side door swung open. Quinn’s apprentice Nate was hunched inside, a Glock 19 pistol in his right hand.
“Ground check?” Nate asked.
“We’re all set,” Quinn replied.
Nate relaxed. While he had no doubt been watching Quinn’s approach—first on the cameras stationed around the church, then on those surrounding the van—and had seen his boss return alone, there was always the possibility someone had gotten to Quinn in one of the dead areas, and was waiting just beyond the camera’s view. But Quinn had answered Nate’s question with the prearranged all-clear signal.
The apprentice moved aside and let Quinn enter, then leaned out and pulled the door shut.
The van had been transformed into a mobile observation post. But unlike those fancy ones in the movies, here little attention had been paid to the human component. A half-dozen small flat-screen monitors were mounted on the right wall. Five were receiving signals from the ten cameras back at the church, each monitor assigned to two cameras, and automatically toggling back and forth every five seconds. The sixth monitor was digitally divided into four smaller screens displaying different views of the surveillance van and the surrounding area. Below the monitors, twenty-eight digital recorders—each no larger than a paperback book—were hung in portable racks. Two recorders per feed, in case one crapped out.
And as if that wasn’t enough, there was a satellite link sending a real-time signal back to the Office’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.
State-of-the-art equipment all. It was the two plastic chairs and the banged-up portable ice chest that seemed out of place.
“You check in with Peter?” Quinn asked. Peter was the head of the Office, and the man who had hired them.
“Fifteen minutes ago,” Nate said as he settled into the chair nearest the back of the van. “We did another connection test. Signal strength is steady. I flipped it to black, so they’re not getting anything at the moment.”
“Any more interference from the cameras?” Quinn said.
Nate shook his head. “Everything seems fine now. I think we’re ready.”
“Keep an eye on them,” Quinn said, nodding toward the monitors. “If anything acts up again, let me know.”
“You going somewhere?”
Quinn pushed the empty plastic chair toward the equipment rack, then stretched out on the floor. “As far away from here as I can,” he said as he closed his eyes. “Wake me in two hours if there aren’t any more problems.”
“Yeah, sure,” Nate said. “I’ll just… stay here.”
“Stay alert.” Quinn tapped the cooler with his foot. “Have a Red Bull, if you need one.”
Nate said something under his breath.
Quinn opened one eye. “What?”
Quinn stared for a moment longer, then closed the eye. “I could have left you in Los Angeles, you know.”
He could sense Nate wanting to say something more, but his apprentice remained silent.
At five minutes to nine, the Office’s agent, a veteran operative named David Otero, arrived. With him was William Ownby, the allotted second man. Quinn and Nate watched as the two agents cautiously approached the church, then entered the abandoned sanctuary.
Peter had told Quinn that Otero and Ownby would have no knowledge of Quinn’s presence. That wasn’t unusual. Quinn and Nate weren’t there as backup. They were there for an entirely different reason. One Otero and Ownby wouldn’t have wanted to consider.
Nate glanced at his watch. “It’s three minutes after nine. Our other guest is running behind.”
Quinn nodded, but said nothing. The second party had been told the meet would take place somewhere in the south of Ireland, but had only been given the exact location three hours earlier. And the church wasn’t the easiest place in the world to find.
“Hold on,” Nate said. “Lights.”
Quinn used a handheld joystick to pan a camera that was covering the road to the south a little to the right, centering a pair of distant headlights moving toward the church. For a moment, they disappeared as the road dipped between two hills. Quinn and Nate had measured the distance that morning. The vehicle was just under a kilometer away.
A moment later, the car reappeared, and less than thirty seconds later it began to slow.
“Approaching the turnout,” Nate said.
On the screen, the car slowed to almost a crawl, then pulled off into the wide spot in the road, and its lights were turned off.
Quinn leaned forward and pushed a button on a rectangular metal box mounted in the rack. Next to the button was a speaker, and just above that a microphone was mounted on a five-inch gooseneck extender.
“Peter, you getting this?” Quinn asked, then let go of the button.
“Yes. That’s got to be them.” Though Peter’s voice came through the speaker, the quality was so good it sounded like he was in the van with them.
Quinn glanced back at one of the monitors covering the inside of the church. Otero had found a large block of stone to sit on, while Ownby had taken up a less visible position in a nook near the north entrance. If either man was getting impatient, they didn’t show it.
Four minutes later, one of the microphones picked up the sound of footsteps approaching the church.
“Everything recording?” Quinn asked.
Nate glanced at a small LCD monitor mounted on a swivel arm next to the hard drives. He pressed one of the buttons on the touchscreen menu. The display changed to a set of green lights.
“All drives recording,” he said, then glanced over his shoulder toward the communication equipment. “Satellite link steady and strong.”
Quinn pushed the button that connected him with the Office. “Approaching the church now.”
“Good,” Peter said. “Let’s get this over with.”
Otero must have also heard the footsteps. He stood up, and put a cautious hand on the bulge in his jacket pocket before looking back at Ownby and pointing in the direction of the approaching sound. Ownby reached under his jacket and pulled out a gun, a Beretta 9mm. From his pocket he pulled out a long cylinder, a suppressor, and attached it to the end of the barrel.
The footsteps stopped just beyond the walls of the church. Then silence for almost a minute.
“I don’t see them,” Nate said.